Documenting Life


I take pictures. Of stuff. And people, sometimes. I can’t really call myself a photographer, because I don’t try hard enough to be a good photographer. I don’t think of my photography as some careful art…I think of it as just…it.


I just take pictures. Of scenes and slices of life that remind me of greater things. I take pictures of landscapes because the wider the horizon, the more I am able to breathe. I take pictures of things because the tiniest details can be captured and seen over and over again. I take pictures of people because I don’t want to forget. I take pictures because I document joy.


Except when I don’t. I don’t take photos when I am angry, when I am sorrowful, when I am lost. Because in all of those times, I don’t know how to see those things in a photograph. I’m not looking at the world around me like it is beautiful, so I don’t bother to save a piece of it. There is no joy, so there is nothing kept. I don’t want to remember those times.


And that’s the problem. Because it’s not because the beauty is gone or even tarnished. It’s just that my sight of it is a little dim. Eventually I come around to seeing the way the sun streaks through the clouds, and then I pull out my camera or pick up my pen, and I document joy once again.


But shouldn’t we be documenting the not-joy moments, too? Shouldn’t we be telling of the days when life is less than glorious, when the sun-streaks are dull or not there at all? Look at the Bible. What if we were missing the lament of Job or the rebuke of Jeremiah? What if we were missing the tears of Lamentations or the repentance of Hosea? What if the only thing documented was joy?


Psalm 51 is a photograph; a photograph without sunshine. At first.

“For I acknowledge my transgressions,
And my sin is always before me.
Against You, You only, have I sinned,
And done this evil in Your sight–
That You may be found just when You speak,
And blameless when You judge.”

Why take this picture? This is not a sunset that takes your breath away or a perfectly red rose. This photograph is snot and tears and mostly regret. And yet.


“O Lord, open my lips,
And my mouth shall show forth Your praise.
For You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it;
You do not delight in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit,
A broken and a contrite heart–
These, O God, You will not despise.”

But these photographs are the ones we need, too. The ones that are just as honest as the rest. Because the truth is this: there is sunshine and sunsets and glorious horizons. There is laughter and joy and yes, please, document it.

But there is sorrow, and sadness, and brokenness, and loss. There is sin and chaos and yes, please document it.


Because the times of the thunderstorms come before the times of the rainbow. Because the records of sin and sorrow come before the triumph of salvation. Documenting joy is wonderful and necessary and keeps our souls healthy, but it is not enough. It is not enough to say that God is only good, or only delightful, or only as present as the sun we can see. It is far more honest to say that God is greater than these, delightful and demanding, and present in every circumstance.

So here is my document of both. Of both pain and pleasure, for the grace of God exists in both.


Share your joy, O saints and sinners,
Share your grief, O saved of God,
Share your home, O long sojourners,
Share your hope, O redeemed soul


A Complaint of the Times

So much regulation and so few lives saved,
So much loud music and so little melody,
So many doctorates and none wiser made,
Such license in the name of liberty,
  So much compassion preached, so little shown,
  Since the world’s beginning there was never known.

So much production of so many shoddy goods,
So little saving and so much money spent,
So many rulings so little understood,
Such lavish shows and such poor amusement,
  So many bureaus fat and purses lean
  Since the world’s beginning there was never seen.

So much to bed, so little marrying,
So many new police and no less crime,
So many churches built, so few prayed in,
So many new dollars not worth a dime,
  So much speculation on so little ground
  Since the world’s beginning there was never found.

So much change of fashion and no beauty gained,
So much expense so little justified,
So many principles so ill explained,
So much self-praising with so little pride,
  So much prophecy of ruin and so little heed,
  Since the world’s beginning can no scholars read.

“A Complaint of the Times” by Gail White

Published in First Things, October 2007

What You Want


Every day I’ve been feeling the pressure
I always gotta know the plan
It’s a weight that I’ve tried to shoulder
I thought I could, but I can’t

And I’m so tired of chasing dreams
When I am wired to let You lead

You’re changing my heart
To what what You want
To love how You love
And that is enough
There’s no greater plan
That I need to know
You only ask me to follow

And want what You, what You want
And want what You, what You want
And want what You, what You want
And want what You, what You want

Oh, there’s freedom in this surrender
I feel myself come alive
And the burden feels like a feather
When I let my agenda die
And I get so tired of my own dreams
When I am wired to let You lead

So many leaders
You ask for followers
So keep on leading
‘Cause You’re my Father

~Tenth Avenue North

Letters From An MBI Student – 6/1

Dear Chicago,

You know I don’t hate you, right? You know that I don’t hate your trains, your traffic, your yellow clouds at night, and your cardboard signs on every corner. You know that I don’t hate the claustrophobia of the Purple Line at 17:05, the ambulance sirens at 1:15, the taxi horns at 6:30, the dogs and crickets and slurred speeches at 20:00. You know that I don’t hate the smell of coffee and bagels and trash and homelessness, the sounds of angry drivers and weary travelers and untethered foreigners, the looks of the curious and tired and filthy and ordinary, the feel of a city that wants to be remembered for more than its violence, and the knowledge of a place with its head in the clouds and dirty feet on the ground.

You know that I just don’t always want to be here, right?

You know that you can’t be everything to everyone all of the time. You know that it is never silent here, never still, never quite real. You know that the little pockets of serenity here are man-made and hand-carved, with a thin line between the city and silence–or maybe just a fence–and the stale breezes of The Windy City are always trespassing between them. You know that you teach us to make our own silence by making our own noise, to find our own space by choosing what to fill it with, because there is nothing here that has not been drilled, labelled, approved, pegged on a map somewhere, and tagged with graffiti and yesterday’s gum. You know that your streets and shops are in collusion against the sky, because there are too many potholes and pickpockets and people to be able to look up long enough for the clouds to get in our lungs. You know you have taught us to stare at the ground and everyone around us with distrust and disillusionment, because nothing and nobody is as good as it is supposed to be. You know your billboards are a conflation of need and selfishness: you tell us to demand the best, donate the rest, never be satisfied, find it in gleaming steel and something out of a bank account. You know the spaces you are crafting into the next best thing are littered with cigarettes and angry car horns and the appreciative whistle appreciated by no one.

You know you are the city. You know you are layer upon layer of good and bad and ugly and no matter how high your buildings, how crystal your windows, how promising your developments…you are still most beautiful when your windows are red with a sunset you did not paint, when your streets are splattered by a rain you did not manufacture, when your walkways are covered by a lake you did not carve, when your buildings and alleyways and streets and scaffolding are bright in the sunlight you do not own. Did you know that it is the things you cannot control that keep us sane?

Don’t try too hard to make me love you, Chicago. Try as you might to dazzle and sparkle and glitter brighter than everyone and everything, you will never quite be enough. You will always have your passion and your violence, your pinnacles and your projects. You will always be trying to be better and you will always never be enough. And that is okay. Because don’t forget: you were created, too. You were built by those who are forever confronted by their inability to create utopia and forever confronted by the Creator who will. But He won’t call it Chicago.


Empty My Hands

I’ve got voices in my head and they are so strong
And I’m getting sick of this oh Lord, how long
Will I be haunted by the fear that I believe
My hands like locks on cages
Of these dreams I can’t set free

But if I let these dreams die
If I lay down all my wounded pride
If I let these dreams die
Will I find that letting go lets me come alive

So empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with you

These voices speak instead and what’s right is wrong
And I’m giving into them, please Lord, how long
Will I be held captive by the lies that I believe
My heart’s in constant chaos and it keeps me so deceived

But if I let these dreams die
If I could just lay down my dark desire
If I let these dreams die
Will I find you brought me back to life

So empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with you

‘Cause my mind is like a building burning down
I need your grace to keep me, keep me from the ground
And my heart is just a prisoner of war
A slave to what it wants and to what I’m fighting for

So won’t you empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with you

Empty my hands
Fill up my heart
Capture my mind with you

With you
I need you now

~Tenth Avenue North